Preface: Although the following remarks are limited to explicit Buddhist content, they are meant to turn readers to their own framework of thought. I trust that none of us are so narrow minded as to ignore the helpful insights which can be found in other faiths. My experiential acquaintance with Christianity leads me to welcome Jesus’ perspectives and parables as “wise and skilful words” to inform my behaviour and my thought – even though I have rejected Christian theism. Two examples are his “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:38-40) and his Good Samaritan parable (Luke 10:25-37). This in no way negates my commitment both to “Buddhism” and the more specific Buddhism of my “Pragmatic” tradition. I hope this look at life through Buddhist eyes will offer something positive to all SNS readers.
Buddhists love to celebrate “enlightenment” (full awakening, which transforms us to a new level of spiritual sight). What we see is the same world as before (there is no other), but in such a new light that many are tempted to declare it an altogether different place. But, as the sage Nargajuna put it, “Nirvana is samsara” – transformed living is found in our everyday, inescapable world. As the Zen saying puts it, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” This is similar, in ways, to Jesus’ declaration that “the Kingdom of Heaven is within you” and to the here-and-now work of the Christian Socialist movement. Those who welcome such statements have come to realise that “spirituality” does not extract us from the world we live in. Rather it involves us, more fully and more positively, in the same world that we were born into and will pass out of.
Of such a this-worldly faith, the Buddha himself is the great example. But how are we to understand him and thus be guided to replicate his great victory? When Buddhists celebrate their ultimate founder and way-shower, it is often with abstract statements, such as is found in the traditional Ti Ratna Vandana, the Salutation to the Three Jewels, here represented in Sangharakshita’s translation: “Such indeed is He, the Richly Endowed, the Free, the Fully and Perfectly Awake, Equipped with Knowledge and Practice, the Happily Attained, Knower of the Worlds, Guide Unsurpassed of Men to Be Tamed, the Teacher of Gods and Men, the Awakened One Richly Endowed.”
The Buddha knew the importance of logical, rational teaching. Indeed, the early Suttas record much of his dharma as taught in a purely rational, logical form. This is true of the Four Ennobling Truths and the Ennobling Eight-fold Path, the sequence of repeated experience, the three marks of conditioned existence, and the core insight of conditionality. Thus, his teaching can seem as cold as a scalpel – and very hard to identify with. Perhaps this explains Buddhism’s later tendency toward abstraction. Perhaps even the original Suttas, inscribed a few hundred years after the Buddha’s time, were already reflecting his followers tendency towards the “scholastic” – filtering out or toning down the emotional and pragmatic. However, the Buddha’s teaching was often concrete and down to earth, humanising and vivifying his logical discourse through the use of parables, similes and metaphors:1
While the Buddha didn’t present himself as a living ‘parable’, every story about his actions and reactions can (might) have a significant implication that we should (might) do likewise. Some examples:
(1) His going forth from a comfortable and privileged life to seek something better than “samsara”, (which can be described as dead-end living, led by our feelings, and ignorant of ourselves and the objects we perceive, with a consequent misleading sense of reality). We won’t get very far in our spiritual growth if we are not willing to break with the very real distortions that restrict us. These distortions are often sourced in our cultural and social situations, shaping our identities and perceived destinies. Thankfully, we can leave them behind.
(2) His determination to awaken to a deeper, intuited sense of reality, and to its consequent fruit: full awakening. We too need viriya, an ancient Indian term which means “an energy aimed at seeking the good”.
(3) His willingness to test practices that promised spiritual growth, and to abandon them when they failed to deliver. The application is obvious. Tragically we get stuck with what has seemed positive in our past (or which has a positive reputation), even when it is not bearing fruit in our lives. We can too easily exchange the search for a dynamic, radical spirituality for a familiar and controlled version. It might contain an element of reassurance, but sadly fails to renew us. We end up at the end of a sad progression from “a man (or woman), to a movement, to a monument” which plagues many ‘spiritualities’.
(3) His missionary emphasis (our faith is to be shared with all who are open to it). Despite some historic reasons for a distrust of the “m word”, it’s a mark of compassion to share a wholesome, life-changing faith with those willing to receive it. Because of the many erroneous missionary practices of the past, we can turn a blind eye to this aspect of an otherwise positive and confident faith. The Buddha did not try to convince an unwilling or uninterested audience, but he always stood ready to declare his dharma,
(4) His extreme open-mindedness and equanimity, which could recommend a loyalty to other faith systems, when appropriate to the perception, personality or situation of a person. Such an attitude is a wonderful criteria for spiritual teaching. The Dalai Llama has said, “Don’t use my teaching to become a Buddhist; use it to become a better whoever-you-are.” How many similar quotes from religious leaders have you encountered?
(5) His strategic withholding of the ‘whole truth and nothing but the truth’ when it would not be helpful. The whole point of spiritual instruction is to effect change for the better. When the hearer is not read to receive wisdom (no matter how true), silence is “noble”.
(6) Similarly, he knew when direct confrontation was appropriate, and when it was not – based on its ability to create positive change. The Buddha’s courage led him to speak the truth that was relevant to the person and to her situation. Such boldness only works in combination with accurate, wise insight.
(7) He challenged and, in his own movement reversed, the social stratification and exclusion of his day (four basic ‘castes’), by welcoming everyone into his community on an equal basis, and by redefining the nobility and the Brahmin identities in terms of spiritual and moral excellence (rather than the accidents of birth). We can be inspired by the clarity and powerful implementation of his social analysis. In this age of confrontational and exclusionary “identity politics,” we desperately need this kind of wise integrity.
These reflections are illustrative, not at all complete. Their point, of course is not to imitate the Buddha or any other inspiring person, in the sense of copying their outward actions. Rather, we seek to gain a sense of their inner reality. All the above “examples” really don’t give sufficient detail to be able to unpack the Buddha’s spiritual dynamic. One example might suffice for our brief article:
The story is told of the Buddha’s visit to The Monk with Dysentery (the English title of the Kucchivikara-vatthu Sutta).2 It begins, “Now at that time a certain monk was sick with dysentery. He lay fouled in his own urine & excrement. Then the Blessed One, on an inspection tour of the lodgings with Ven. Anandaas his attendant, went to that monk’s dwelling and, on arrival, saw the monk lying fouled in his own urine & excrement. On seeing him, he went to the monk and said, “What is your sickness, monk?”
“I have dysentery, O Blessed One.”
“But do you have an attendant?” “No, O Blessed One.” “Then why don’t the monks attend to you?” “I don’t do anything for the monks, lord, which is why they don’t attend to me.”
Ananda and the Buddha cleaned the man up (not anyone’s most welcome task!). He then conversed with the monks who lived ‘in community’ with their sick brother, advising them to care for one another as they would their own family members – for, in fact, such were effectively the only family they had, since they had “gone forth”. He challenged their callous and selfish behaviour by appealing to their common self-interest, and their loving loyalty to him: “Monks, you have no mother, you have no father, who might tend to you. If you don’t tend to one another, who then will tend to you? Whoever would tend to me, should tend to the sick.”
But then he turned to the sick monk, likely based on his sense of the poor man’s attitude: “A sick person endowed with five qualities is hard to tend to: he does what is not amenable to his cure; he does not know the proper amount in things amenable to his cure; he does not take his medicine; he does not tell his symptoms, as they actually are present, to the nurse desiring his welfare, saying that they are worse when they are worse, improving when they are improving, or remaining the same when they are remaining the same; and he is not the type who can endure bodily feelings that are painful, fierce, sharp, wracking, repellent, disagreeable, life-threatening. A sick person endowed with these five qualities is hard to tend to.”
The Sutta contains more than this, but this brief presentation gives sufficient information for us to challenge our behaviour of avoiding sick friends, family members and neighbours (let it not be so!), or being less than perfect in relating to our own poor health.
If Nelson Mandela, Steven Hawking, Gandhi, Oscar Romero, Elizabeth Fry, The 14th Dalai Lama, Mohammed, Jesus or the Buddha have any helpful inspiration for us, it will not come with greatest impact through abstraction and generalisation. We need to know the facts of their history to catch some sense of their “spirit”. As a blog, The Spiritual Indian, puts it: “on the spiritual path, everyone needs motivation and spiritual guidance. Living with a spiritual master or having a friend circle who is following the spiritual path sincerely is a real blessing for any seeker. Otherwise, do read good spiritual books from time to time when ever you feel low or need guidance. Spiritual biographies will not only inspire you and keep you motivated on the path but can also give you lots of insights.”3
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
- A parable is “A simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson” , such as: ‘the parable of the blind men and the elephant’. A simile is “a figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind, used to make a description more emphatic or vivid (e.g. as brave as a lion)” A metaphor is A figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable; A figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable (‘When we speak of gene maps and gene mapping, we use a cartographic metaphor’). Closely related is analogy: “a comparison between one thing and another, typically for the purpose of explanation or clarification (‘an analogy between the workings of nature and those of human societies’). Definitions are from OxfordDictionaries.com.